Elvis Costello could never be accused of thinking small. Starting with an assumed name that evokes the king of rock-and-roll himself, Costello has spent much of his career exploring ways of merging his dour, post-punk point of view with grander, more traditional musical forms without compromising his anti-establishment image. And on his new album, The Juliet Letters (Warner Brothers 45180-2; CD and cassette), recorded with the Brodsky Quartet, a well-regarded English string ensemble, the tug between his "higher" aspirations and his scrappy roots has reached a new degree of tautness.
The Juliet Letters is a suite of 20 songs — three of them instrumentals — that the 38-year-old Costello created collaboratively with the quartet, whose members are in their early 30's. Recorded like a classical chamber music album, without overdubs, the record is a fascinating study in aural contrasts that takes some getting used to. Against the ensemble's sumptuous playing, Costello's stringy voice, with its choked intonation and sarcastic undertone, sounds like the wrong instrument for the right record.
After the initial shock, however, the friction becomes more bracing than jarring. Even when Frank Sinatra recorded his 1957 album, Close to You, with the Hollywood String Quartet, the disparity between his pop style and the classical setting seemed daring. Costello's singing could never approach Sinatra's full-bodied sensuality and rhythmic command. But his vocalizing of the score's angular melodies, some of which make unexpected, quasi-operatic leaps to the top of his register, remains mostly on pitch. And especially in his quieter moments, his adenoidal baritone, with its wide, quavering vibrato, communicates a pained intensity.
The music, composed by Costello and members of the quartet, sustains a surprisingly felicitous blend of pop narrative and traditional string quartet texture, embracing echoes of composers from Schubert to Shostakovich, with occasional touches of the folksier side of Bartók. The song structures are loose and open-ended, with several vignettes forgoing conventional song form.
The Juliet Letters is lyrically as well as musically audacious, since most of the songs are in the epistolary mode. The project was inspired, Costello has said, by a newspaper article about a Veronese teacher who began answering letters he was receiving that were addressed to a "Juliet Capulet." But while several songs are variations on Romeo and Juliet, the 20 pieces don't try to make an overarching statement.
As usual with his albums, many of Costello's lyrics invent riddles and revel in tricky plot reverses. "The First to Leave," for instance, is about a posthumously discovered love letter by a writer who sends greetings from purgatory to a partner who does not believe in an afterlife. But even if there is no afterlife, the deceased concludes, "Don't grieve/ You see I had to be the first to leave."
In "Romeo's Seance," a bereft young lover tries to contact his beloved in a spiritualist ceremony and produces a poem to read to her. But it is only at the end that Romeo tells Juliet that the poem is one that she herself dictated recently from beyond the grave.
"Taking My Life in Your Hands" is a missive full of misery and threats to someone who has been returning the writer's correspondence unopened. But in the song's last lines, the writer admits that he won't mail the letter and that, in fact, their relationship is imaginary.
The profusion of songs with bizarre characters and narrative gimmicks is such that the tone of the collective voices in The Juliet Letters sounds a little bit crazy. At the same time, Costello has amusingly stretched the letter-writing concept to include graffiti, junk mail and legal correspondence.
Sneered in a loutish dialect, "Swine" (the graffiti song) is a wordy barrage of insults ("You're a swine, and I'm saying that's an insult to the pig") carved with a penknife. "This Offer Is Unrepeatable" (the junk mail number) is a rollicking Gilbert and Sullivan-style show tune whose lyric is a long pattery blurb. Together with "Damnation's Cellar," which imagines a time machine that delivers everyone from Shakespeare to Hitler to Elvis Presley into the 1990's, it demonstrates Costello's skill at being funny in the jolly-cynical mode of Randy Newman.
So many of the songs on The Juliet Letters flaunt their cleverness that it is refreshing to find the occasional cut that doesn't play word games with the listener. In one of the more direct songs, "This Sad Burlesque," one-half of an embattled famous couple (Prince Charles and Princess Diana?) commiserates by letter with his estranged partner over their plight having become fodder for "miserable failures making entertainment of our fate."
The most touching song, "Why?," is a mere fragment. A child's note to his mother that asks, "Why is Daddy not here? Are you crying?," it has the stark emotional simplicity of a John Lennon primal-scream ballad.
Although the intelligence and musicality that went into The Juliet Letters make it one of Costello's most impressive records, the album has the same emotional evasiveness that runs through all his work. Costello's verbal overkill, his fondness for multisyllable words and offbeat images, often seem like a defense against more direct expression. The denser the language, the more it recasts feelings as attitudes and turns stories into puzzles. The quartet's warm, flowing textures only accentuate a tendency that can sabotage melody by weighing it down with too many mouthfuls of verbiage.
The Juliet Letters reinforces the impression that Costello is a mystery writer at heart: he would probably make a terrific author of whodunits. If they were anything like his songs, they would be elaborate stories with labyrinthine plots and many desperate characters getting tangled up in riddles as they try to explain themselves.